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Two of the world’s top pipeline companies, Enbridge Inc. and TransCanada Corp., are starting to use fiber optics to avoid spills.

They are in the process of piloting a system that can pinpoint leaks and other disturbances down to the centimeter (0.4 inch) in real time, using a fiber-optic wire threaded inside or alongside a pipeline to measure acoustic, temperature and vibration data.

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The technology can even alert the pipeline operator if construction work is getting too close to a line.

Enbridge is deploying the technology on a 20-mile segment of the Norlite diluent pipeline in Northern Alberta.

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TransCanada, on the other hand, wants to install the system on short sections near the start of the Keystone pipeline in Hardisty, Alberta, and around its terminus in Houston next year.

The technology was developed by Calgary-based Hifi Engineering, partly owned by Enbridge and Cenovus Energy Inc. 

It costs about $8 to $12 to install along a meter of new pipeline, which represents about 0.5 percent of the cost of a new pipeline construction, said Hifi Chief Executive Steven Koles.

TransCanada and Enbridge are not the only companies using the technology. Shell is also using the tool.

“We at Shell have successfully used Hifi’s LeakSonar tool to detect and locate surface casing vent flows in our wells,” the company said on Hifi’s web site. “Two features that are unique about this tool is that it is far more sensitive than any other tool in the market place and it’s able to detect the direction that the flow is coming from. The system generates a mountain of data, yet after processing, the output is easily interpreted.”

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